On April 9, some 25,000 people gathered around the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France under a cloudless blue sky to remember the men who had fought and died there a century earlier. For the more than 8,000 Canadian high school students in the crowd, the ceremony was the capstone experience of their journey through Western Europe with educational travel company EF Tours, undertaken specifically to commemorate the centennial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge — and 21 Canadian educational organizations, including Canadian Geographic Education, were on hand to help them better understand the significance of the battle.
For two days, the Artois Expo in nearby Arras — itself the site of a major First World War offensive that began on April 9, 1917 — was transformed into an experiential educational hub where the students could see a replica Sopwith Pup biplane, speak to actors in uniform about the realities of trench warfare, learn how women in Canada kept their families fed in a time of scarcity, and, at Canadian Geographic’s station, explore the evolution of cartography and aerial photography during the First World War to understand why accurate maps were critical to the success at Vimy Ridge.
On Canadian Geographic’s Drawn to Victory giant floor map, which depicts the western front, Finn Reeves, a Grade 11 student from Aurora High School in Aurora, Ont. searched for Ypres, Belgium. Two of his great-uncles were killed at Ypres; his great-grandfather survived Vimy Ridge.
“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here,” he said, pulling out his smartphone to show photos of his great-grandparents at the official opening of the Vimy Memorial in 1936. “It’s special to be able to come back here and think about what it means to be free.”
Brendan McIntyre and Samantha May, both Grade 12 students from Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School in London, Ont., traced their own whirlwind tour of various memorials and battle sites in the Arras area, including the Seaforth Highlanders Memorial and the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. What stood out to them at those sites was the caring evident in the tidiness of the graves — and the carnage on the landscape, visible even under a carpet of green grass.
“You can still see the trenches, still see the shell holes,” May said.
“To learn about it in class is one thing, but to walk on the fields and see the graveyards gives it new meaning,” added McIntyre.
The opportunity to partner with EF Tours to engage Canadian students in the legacy of Vimy Ridge in France was exciting for Canadian Geographic Education as an organization, said Gilles Gagnier, publisher of Canadian Geographic.
“Our mandate is to make Canada better known to Canadians and the world,” he said. “We’ve been doing the first part exceptionally well since 1929, but in the last couple of years we’ve been working harder on the international part of our mandate, and we're grateful to partners like EF Tours who are helping us to share great content around the world."
The Drawn to Victory and Vimy Ridge giant floor maps, created as part of the larger multimedia Vimy commemoration project called A Nation Soars, are the first international maps created by Canadian Geographic Education. To see Canadian youth in France using them to contextualize the battle and their own experiences was moving, Gagnier said.
“Maps are the perfect tool to locate yourself in the world," he said, "and it was powerful to see students 100 years later making connections between the First World War and their own families."